Captivated by cacti: Ben Russell, Dan Torre and the symbolism of the spine

Cacti, collected: the Southfields Nurseries display at the Chelsea flower show, 2016. Photograph by Jane Perrone.

Cacti, collected: the Southfields Nurseries display at the Chelsea flower show, 2016. Photograph by Jane Perrone.

Mammillarias dotted with flowers in all the luminous colours of a rack of neon pop socks in C&A, circa 1983; the old man cactus, Cephalocereus senilis, outdoing ZZ Top for the sheer luxuriance of its hairdo; the huge tree-like, branched saguaro cactus of the Sonoran Desert, used as a visual shorthand for "the wild west" in every cowboy movie, ever.

I've been captivated by cacti since I was a kid. I was lucky enough to go to a lower school that had a large glasshouse-cum-conservatory along one sunny wall of the building, and it was filled with not-very-well cared for but venerable cacti, some tall enough to be tapping their spiny fingers against the glass. I'd try to spend as much time as possible hanging out there, and I think the head teacher must have picked up on my love of plants as me and my friend were allowed to bunk off maths class to go and water the spider plants in the library (wouldn't happen today, right?!) 

At home, I started up my own collection of cacti, picking up wizened specimens from jumble sales and Woolworths. The thrill when the first one flowered - a huge white trumpet like the horn of a gramophone that appeared one day and was gone the next - was addictive. 

It's been satisfying, in the last five years or so, to see something that I love turn from a niche interest into a pervasive presence in every hip coffee shop and style magazine. "Ah, you finally got it - about time" I think to myself, smugly. But that is an unfair representation of the enduring symbolic power of the cactus: people have loved and revered these plants since before recorded human history, and will continue to do so once the current fad dies down. 

Cactus art: some of Ben Russell's sculptures at his exhibition at the HIgnell Gallery in London. Photograph: Jane Perrone.

Cactus art: some of Ben Russell's sculptures at his exhibition at the HIgnell Gallery in London. Photograph: Jane Perrone.

The real plants that surround the sculptures were supplied and arranged by Conservatory Archives. Photograph: Jane Perrone

The real plants that surround the sculptures were supplied and arranged by Conservatory Archives. Photograph: Jane Perrone

Sculptor Ben Russell is a bit of a cactus lover too. His current Cactus House exhibition at the Hignell Gallery in Mayfair, London, shows how diverse, intricate, and beguiling are the shapes that cacti can make. His sculptures, rendered in alabaster, onyx and portland limestone, are wonderfully tactile: fortunately the first thing the gallery assistant told me when I visited was that I was free to touch them.

The sculptures were set among real plants provided by the indoor plant suppliers Conservatory Archives which provided an intriguing contrast between the real and the constructed, art and nature (and some damn fine houseplants...). I was lucky enough to chair a discussion with Russell and gallery owner Abby Hignell, in which we discussed the ever-changing relationship between art and nature and explored the enduring appeal of the cactus. (I even wore one of my cactus shirts!) The show closes after this weekend (the last day is July 3) so if you are in the vicinity, please do go and take a look. 

Spine security: a cactus fence. Photograph:  Terry Robinson  on  Flickr .

Spine security: a cactus fence. Photograph: Terry Robinson on Flickr.

Ever more inspired by the cactus as a cultural icon in the wake of the exhibition, I was delighted and intrigued when a review copy of new book Cactus by Dr Dan Torre (£16, Reaktion Books) landed on my desk. This book isn't a traditional gardening book: there aren't tips on watering or repotting. Instead Torre explores the cultural and social history of cacti, from the ancient - pictures of cacti found in Peru that date back to 1300BC - to the present day - genetically modified cacti that grow "human hair". I was particularly intrigued by the "living fences" of cactus that are common in Mexico and South America, mainly out of the organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) and Pachycereus species - including the "cactus curtain" along the border of the US base at Guantanamo Bay in the 1960s. 

My children were particularly fascinated to learn that there was an episode of one of their favourite shows, Doctor Who, that features a cactus-like alien called Meglos. I think we all anthropomorphise our plants from time to time, but the trope of the "evil cactus" is an interesting one: perhaps something anyone who has knocked against an Opuntia plant and spend hours picking out the tiny spines can sympathise with. 

I am hoping to interview Dan in a future episode of my podcast On the Ledge - I can't wait!

Update: listen to my interview with Dan Torre here.

Showing off the spines in my cactus shirt at Ben Russell's Cactus House exhibition. Photograph: Fiona Russell.

Showing off the spines in my cactus shirt at Ben Russell's Cactus House exhibition. Photograph: Fiona Russell.